A team that finished behind the Braves is two wins from a title

Credit: Mitchell Layton

Credit: Mitchell Layton

The Braves, who won 97 games, were undone in the National League Division Series by a 10-run first inning at the hands of a 91-win team that finished 10th in the 15-team National League in runs scored. That team, St. Louis, would muster a total of six runs in 36 NL Championship Series innings.

The Dodgers, who won 106 games, were eliminated four hours after the Braves by a 93-win opponent that, trailing 3-1 in the eighth inning, hit home runs on consecutive pitches from the best pitcher of this century. The National League pennant was claimed by a team that started 19-31, didn’t spend a day in first place and finished six games back of the Braves.

The presence of the Nationals, who before this season hadn’t won a playoff round, in the 2019 World Series was seen as further evidence that the MLB postseason, which baseball people have long deemed a crap shoot, remains a source of wonders the likes of which we never see in the NFL or the NBA. If the worst team in baseball can win a regular-season series from the best team in baseball, the 10th- or sixth-best team can win a best-of-five/seven from the best team. That said …

This World Series figured to restore a semblance of order to nature. Late in September, a man who works in baseball said, “The Astros should win it. They’re the best team. It’s not even close.” When the Series pairings were set, Houston was made the biggest favorite since the 2007 Red Sox, who won 96 games, faced the wild-card Rockies, who’d caught late-season lightning in a bottle. The day of Game 1, the erudite Joe Sheehan — as level-headed as any chronicler of any sport — wrote:

"The Nationals are a very good baseball team. The Astros may be the best team ever. They'll show that this week. Astros in four." 

As of Thursday morning, the Astros trail 2-0. They lost Game 2 by nine runs. They’re not a lock to bring the series back to Houston. They’ve thrown Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, who going by FanGraphs WAR were the best and fifth-best pitchers in baseball this season, at the Nationals. They’ve led for a total of two innings.

Yeah, the Nats' starters were Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, the fourth- and seventh-best pitchers, so this isn't Maryland-Baltimore County felling Virginia. (Though the UMBC campus does sit 35 miles from Nationals Park. Just sayin'.) Nobody saw the Nats as a garden-variety wild card. Everybody figured they'd be a tough out, provided they survived the coin-flip wild-card game. Which they did, if only just.

Twenty-two days ago, the Nationals trailed Milwaukee 3-1 with four outs to go. Josh Hader, among the most fearsome relievers in the sport, was facing the 20-year-old Juan Soto. The latter drove a single to right field, whereupon rookie Trent Grisham bobbled it. Three runs scored. It was Grisham's first big-league error. He was playing only because Christian Yelich, last year's National League MVP, shattered his kneecap with a foul ball in September.

The Nats’ winning rally began with a Hader pitch that hit both the knob of Michael Taylor’s bat and his hand, not necessarily in that order. A play ruled a hit-by-pitch on the field couldn’t be overturned by replay review. Then Ryan Zimmerman deposited a broken-bat hit into center field. If you take away any of the above – the non-HBP, the bloop single, the outfield error – these Nationals might well have been one-and-done again. But that’s baseball.

That also was baseball we beheld in the eighth inning of Game 4 in St. Louis. The Braves led 4-3 and were four outs from clinching the series. Yadier Molina fought off a Shane Greene pitch. The ball ticked off the top of a leaping Freddie Freeman's glove to score Paul Goldschmidt, aboard after guiding a soft double down the left-field line. Here was a postgame conversation with Brian McCann, who was catching that day and has since retired.

MB: “Greene broke Goldschmidt’s bat, right?”

McCann, grimly: “He hit it off the label.”

MB: “And the pitch to Yadi?”

McCann, grimmer still: “Off the label.”

Two days later, the Braves yielded 10 runs in a first inning that saw the Cardinals manage only five hits, none a home run. The Nationals were close to losing the wild-card game and close to losing Game 5 in L.A. The Braves were close to eliminating St. Louis without a Game 5. None of that happened, and here the Nats are, up 2-love on the best darn team in baseball. And here the Braves aren’t, having sacked up the bats three weeks ago.

As the Yankees radio voice John Sterling — old-timers recall him as a Braves/Hawks voice in the ’80s — says roughly once an inning: You can’t predict baseball. That’s not entirely true: Over the fullness of a regular season, teams finish where they should finish. October throws everything into a trash compactor, and what comes out isn’t always recognizable. No manager would use a starting pitcher in relief on opening day, as Washington’s Dave Martinez did with Strasburg in the wild-card game and Patrick Corbin in Game 1 of the World Series. It’s still baseball; it’s just not the baseball of the regular season.

Nothing will erase the indignity of 10-0 after a half-inning of Game 5, but the majestic Astros suffered something close Wednesday. Game 2 was tied entering the seventh. Kurt Suzuki, an ex-Brave, led off with a home run off Verlander. Two walks and two outs later, manager A.J. Hinch would order Soto to be walked intentionally. It was the first time this season — a season its 174th game — Houston had done such a thing. It won’t again soon.

Howie Kendrick grounded to Alex Bregman, maybe the best of the many splendid ’Stros. The third baseman couldn’t glove it. Another run. Asdrubal Cabrera, who struck out three times against Verlander, delivered a two-run single off Ryan Pressly. A wild pitch moved the runners over. Zimmerman grounded to Bregman, who threw the ball away. The Nationals scored six runs — on four hits, two of which didn’t leave the infield — in an inning started by a Hall of Fame pitcher.

The Astros, it must be said, aren't done. Ten teams have won the World Series after trailing 2-0. Only three teams have won after losing the first two games at home. The most recent example came in 1996. The Yankees lost Games 1 and 2 in the Bronx by the aggregate score of 16-1. They didn't lose again. Their opponent was …

(Are you really going to make me say it? OK, fine.)

The Braves.